Hammer Museum, Los Angeles June 21 – September 6, 2009
Roland Barthes’s description of Tokyo and its empty center could be a perfect portrayal of the work of Larry Johnson: “The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who.” Johnson, of course, is no emperor, but over the past 25 or so years he has created his own “Empire of Signs” in which he always can be found in the details without once showing his face. Showing his hand, however, is another story, and an unapologetic one at that.
It comes as no surprise that Barthes made a passing reference to Los Angeles’s lack of a center on his way to Tokyo’s empty one, which, even if unoccupied, is still somewhere after all. This survey at the Hammer Museum of more than 60 photographs, organized by Russell Ferguson, argues for Johnson’s leading role as a Los Angeles artist in the tradition of his teacher John Baldessari: both artists have brought another type of focus to photography by using drawing, painting, and graphic design to make—rather than take—pictures. Perhaps such a claim makes it appropriate (rather than outrageous) that this show is not scheduled to travel. For a moment it provides L.A.—and only L.A.—with a center, one that is almost Zen-like in the fullness of its emptiness and vice versa.
Ferguson’s decision to group works in successive rooms by type, form, or color, rather than by date (with one crucial exception) is provocative. The bonus, however, is that the rooms also mirror the aesthetic, historical, and ideological juxtapositions of this sprawling, mediated city, not to mention those occurring within the work itself. The first one is a prime example. On the left, Johnson’s iconic “Untitled (Standing Still & Walking in Los Angeles)” (1994) commemorates the “frozen motion” of hustlers along Santa Monica Boulevard by rewriting a Frank O’Hara phrase and relocating it (in undulating blue text) next to a graphic image of what could be snow (or something else) melting down a field of orange. Across from it is the wicked “Untitled (John-John and Bobby)” (1988), a pair of orange photographs of text that look like grave markers and present the sexploits of two well-named (and, from the sound of it, well-hung) young men. The shock of this work ricochets us back to the other side of the room, where the haunting, elegiac, yellow-on-black text in “Untitled (Grief Is Devastating)” (1985), taken verbatim from a TV Guide description of a two-part (hence the diptych) program on Robert Kennedy, anchors one corner while “Untitled (Black Box)” (1987) holds down another with the final words from a doomed airliner (“Larry, we’re going down, Larry . . . I know it”) executed in scattershot primary colors on a mirror-like slick black surface.
After these four knockouts, it’s overwhelming to think that we’re not yet finished with the room, which is in fact dominated by “Untitled (Land w/o Bread)” (1999-2000), a four-part tour de force that couches its homage to Buñuel in a funny yet poignant acknowledgement of the end of “straight” photography (Johnson was about to go digital): his fingertips obscuring a portion of the lens and half-blotting out the images of a cartoon donkey and a mountain goat. (Exhausted, I’m left giving short shrift to “Untitled (Peter Lawford)” (1995) which makes a joke about the current state of California politics (Schwarzenegger) years before its time.)
Provoked by Ferguson’s risky curatorial behavior, I’ve left out some of Johnson’s masterpieces—though I do have to mention my favorite, “Untitled (Morgan Camera and King O’Lawn)” (1994) which unites the character logos from a defunct camera store on Sunset Boulevard and the lawn mower from his childhood in ultra-suburban Lakewood with the ghost of El Lissitzky and what I’ve referred to in the past as the complex and still unresolved aesthetic and ideological movement of photomontage between the two world wars described by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in his 1984 essay “From Faktura to Factography.” If this extreme shuffling of Johnson’s deck had defined the entire show I’m pretty sure it would have been too much. This is why Ferguson’s decision to group Johnson’s most gorgeous photographs in the dead center of the exhibition—his “Winter Landscapes” from 1990-1992—is so grounding and moving. Based on the animation cel backgrounds of Scooby-Doo cartoons, the celebrity-obsessed signboards that Johnson has planted in their placid/plastic sceneries stake a claim on the anonymity of their collective territory that is not only more than worthy of comparison with the exquisiteness of Hiroshige and Hokusai, but also proof of Johnson’s position as one of the most socially astute artists to emerge at the end of the 20th century. His status has been reinforced by some of his latest works, “Untitled (Copier)”, “Untitled (Meters)”, and” Untitled (Projector)” (all 2007), which in the end forego color to depict light as enlightenment itself, surviving, as Johnson always has himself, in the wake of any real or perceived obsolescence.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.